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Ron Fairchild is the chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore

When it comes to closing academic achievement gaps, summer has been the season of lost opportunities.

Mention the words “summer school” to a young person and you’re likely to hear a painful groan. That’s because summer school typically means sitting indoors doing remedial work and feeling punished. Forced to make tough decisions to balance increasingly tight budgets, school districts are no more enthusiastic. A recent survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that 34 percent of respondents are considering eliminating summer school for the 2010‐11 school year – if they haven’t already.

But this summer school malaise obscures an important truth: High-quality summer learning is perhaps the most powerful yet underutilized opportunity to raise achievement in our nation’s education toolkit. When done right – and with the right mix of incentives to ensure attendance – summer learning can help students from low-income families gain ground academically and get on a path to success in school and beyond.

Such programs are more important than ever. Research shows that low-income students lose more than two months in reading achievement each summer while their middle-class peers make slight gains. Additionally, about two-thirds of the 9th-grade achievement gap in reading between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years. This is not acceptable in a nation that demands greater skills for the 21st century workforce.

Research shows that summer learning programs can make a big difference in whether kids drop out of school or stay on track to graduate. That will help prepare them to be productive workers and taxpayers, while also ensuring our economy has the skilled workforce it needs to compete globally. It’s worth noting that U.S. students spend about 180 days in school each year, compared to about 225 days for students in South Korea, Japan and China.

If uninspired summer learning programs were to be the norm, then districts might be right to scrap them. But there is a new vision for summer learning that promises high returns on public investments and is taking hold in cities, among philanthropies and community-based groups, and with policymakers.

This new vision encourages learning and enrichment rather than remediation. Classroom walls are torn down and replaced by parks, radio production studios, or stages at local theaters. Activities are designed to connect with school curricula while also being fun and engaging. Instructors are well-trained and programs are tailored to meet students’ academic needs, particularly at key transitional points to middle school and high school. In many cases built-in incentives – such as transportation and meals – are provided to encourage attendance. Most importantly, students attend these programs not because they have to, but because they want to.

Such programs – and we see them in Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and elsewhere – are not simply district add-ons. They are district-led, teacher-designed efforts to merge resources, create partnerships, and invest in opportunities to build on the school year. Allowing students to fall behind during the summer – as happens for many children beginning after kindergarten – means losing the investment and momentum of the regular school year. Better summer learning is good public policy.

As we embark on the summer of 2010, momentum for the new vision continues to grow. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan continue to talk about summer learning, and NASA has made an unprecedented commitment to summer programming in science, technology, and math. It’s fitting that The Wallace Foundation chose National Summer Learning Day, June 21, to launch a major effort to study summer learning and promote best practices, as part of an initiative to provide disadvantaged children more time for learning. Wallace is part of a growing list of funders showing new interest in summer learning and supporting innovation and public investments to take successful programs to scale.

Despite this important momentum, the current fiscal challenges require cost-neutral or cost-effective solutions that take advantage of existing funding and support. These strategies include tracking student performance, and collaborating with unions to identify, hire, and compensate instructors. It’s also critical that districts merge funding streams, find creative incentives to bolster participation, share examples of effective programs (especially for high school students), eliminate ineffective programs, and raise public awareness about this new vision.

The overarching goal is to change the culture around summer learning by moving it from an afterthought to a central place within education reform strategies. By building new coalitions, maximizing existing resources, and creating smarter public policy to realize this vision, we have the power to make sure that summer is a season of renewed opportunity for our nation’s needy students.

Ron Fairchild is the chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore.

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  1. One way to become creative is to forget the old idea of summer school where kids come every day and largely do the same sorts of things they do every school day. Our research, and that of James Kim, confirms that simply ensuring that all children have easy access to books at their independent reading level and books they want to read over the summer months produces as much reading growth over the summer as attending the traditional summer school. The benefit of this finding is that giving children say 10 -20 books to read over the summer is far less expensive than sending them to summer school in this era of limited funding.

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